I am not a HUGE cycle race fan but I am a fan.  Enough to have nicknamed one of my bikes Jacqueline after Anquetile.  And for me the season has begun…Paris-Nice, the race to the sun, is underway.  I also consider myself fortunate in having been able to attend the Tour de France on three separate race days: a team time trial start, the summit of a mid-stage Cat 2 climb and the finish of the 2002 stage at Plateau de Beille.  So what did happen on that mountain stage day?

In 2002, after breakfasting around 6:30 and driving for over an hour behind TDF trash trucks, we parked in Tarascon several miles down the Ariege river from Les Cabannes. It was a bright, warm morning around 10 or so and the bees (“abeille”) were pleasantly buzzing from flower to flower as we mounted our bicycles, circled through the roundabouts and gained access to the race route. The gentle upriver ride warmed our legs but my thoughts were punctuated by moments of race anticipation and anxiety of the upcoming climb. (Check out the climb.) The nearly 10 mile (~7.9%) Plateau de Beille climb would be my first European “big” climb as well as my first day at the tour. 


Race support cars buzzed by, the Gendarmerie Nationale (French National Police) positioned themselves strategically, yellow route arrows posted on phone poles and highway signs guided the way and suddenly we were at the turn in Les Cabannes.  The turn at the base of the hors categorie climb up Plateau de Beille.  The turn that leads you up that wall. The turn that signified non-race vehicles no longer allowed.  The turn to a Tour de France experience to last a lifetime.

I geared down to my lowest, easiest cog. My cadence slowed as we gained altitude.  I covered maybe one kilometer before I had to pop off the first time. On the bike – off the bike.  The pattern repeated. 

Slowly, painfully slowly I crept up the mountain. A picture memorialized our encounter with the celebrity devil. A Camelbak and two bottles of water were rationed but also sucked down as thermometers soared to over 100 F on the pavement.  And then it happened!

Maybe we were halfway up the climb. I was red faced, glistening with perspiration, and creeping up the road when a French fan generously decided to push me.  He was a pro pusher.  Full hand in the center low-back, he ran full speed.  My speed doubled and I recovered every so briefly. More importantly, I had been energized. I knew every cycling fan up the slope, in the ditch and overheating in the full sun supported the middle-aged American suffering up the climb. I heard the calls of “courage” and knew they were meant for me. I rode. At the 4 kilometer to go banner, the gendarm asked cyclists to dismount. Wait! It was only noon. The peloton wasn’t scheduled to begin the climb until around 4pm.  But officially the road was now closed.

Our group wanted to be higher on the mountain. Riding and walking for another 3 kilometers we listened to the French race radio, watched road painters and selected our prime spot.  We waited as we nibbled small sandwiches that had weighed us down on the climb.  We waited as we viewed the entire road from the red kite at 1k to the 3k mark.  We had stunning vistas of the high Pyrenees and we had a

few bushes for shade. We waited as calls of “JaJa premiere” (Laurent Jalabert was leading the pack) followed by the caravan kept excitement building. A friend snagged a Euskatel cycling cap for me – the little bit of extra shade was very much appreciated. And we waited.

Finally we heard the helicopters.  Off in the distance, maybe 3 or 4 of them. Dignitaries and television cameras. They hovered, rotated and approached.  The helicopter sounds diminished as the wave of the roar 

of the crowds rolled up the mountainside.  Then the officials cars were at 3k trailed by motorcycles and Lance Armstrong in yellow. Lance continued past the 1k kite; Beloki, Heras, Botero, Merckx and Rumsas raced by; JaJa passed and everyone was screaming. Dry, dehydrated, parched throats croaked “allez.”  And still more racers ascended the plateau in groups of 2 or 3 or 5 or 10 or more. 

The helicopters landed, the stage winners had arrived and finish festivities were underway.  It was after 5pm and we’d counted over a hundred racers. But we’d miscalculated the number who’d past. Back on our bikes at the 2k mark we noticed the bus (the group of racers just trying to beat the cut-off time) and broom vehicle occupying the entire road.  We jumped back into the crowds on the shoulder as the group labored up the road.

The summit of Plateau de Beille at quieter times.
Cycling back to Tarascon and our van was yet another adventure. We rode in the uphill lane as cars and campers were bumper to bumper in the downhill lane; we stayed close to the cars as the racers whistled their warning that they were about to speed past us and we stopped several times to allow our overheated rims to cool. (Goose bumps…Erik Zabel whistled at me.  Way cool.) Back on the valley road, we took the shoulder carefully dodging mirrors, door handles, and road grates past the continual bumper to bumper traffic, along the bubbling Ariege, and over racer vomit (a less attractive, unexpected moment).  Bicycles were loaded as the sun was setting. Showers and a meal followed well after 9 pm.  A long, dehydrating, exhilarating day.

  • Would I do it again?  Probably not. One day like this was enough for me.  I’d rather see all the attacks and all the details of the race as televised.
  • Do I regret doing it?  Not for a second.  This day remains a unique, precious memory for me.
  • How would I have done it differently?  Water was in short supply especially on this 100 F day.  Reaching the roving vans to purchase water would’ve been a good move.
  • How was Plateau de Beille?  It was tough – especially as a 1st climb.  I have since ridden up PdB three more times; once non-stop on a cooler, cloudier day.  Still 1/2 as fast as a racer but I love that climb!

What will your day be like at the Tour de France?  I have no idea but I know you can make it a day to remember!  Share your thoughts and thanks for reading.

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